Six years is good but eight years is better
Research has shown that it takes six to eight years of first language (L1) education for children to develop their cognitive and linguistic skills in that language. Only then is it advisable to shift them to second language (L2) instruction. But why has the Department of Education chosen an early-exit model (three years of L1 education) for its K-to-12 curriculum?
One reason implies that we are very slow learners, so slow in fact that it took us more than 30 years before realizing that we were going the wrong way in our language-in-education policy. In truth, even today we are still implementing a distorted version of bilingual education where two L2s are used as media of instruction.
Meanwhile, for the rest of the world, bilingual education has always meant using the language that children use most and another language of wider communication as languages of instruction.
Another possible reason is—to quote creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson—the tyranny of common sense, which goes like this: if we start our children early enough in English, they will master it in no time at all. The more time there is for English, the better. This notion is completely a myth, as empirical evidence repeatedly shows.
Stephen Walter compared the reading proficiency of Grade 3 children in Eritrea, all of whom were taught in the L1, with that of Cameroonian children in Grades 4, 5 and 6 who were taught in the L2 in a submersion program. He found out that in an L2 instructional model, it takes five to six years to approximate the reading skills learned in three years or less in an L1 model. According to Walter, even after six years in an L2 model, children read with low levels of comprehension.
The third possible reason for our recalcitrance at lengthening L1 education beyond three years is that this could compromise the learning of English and Filipino. Again the Cameroonian experience is instructive. In a Grade 3 assessment in the Language, Arts and Mathematics subjects, children in experimental L1 schools performed at a level twice higher or even more than the children from the L2 schools. Considering that the assessment was conducted in English, the best explanation for this is that children in the L1 schools were able to learn the curricular content better than those in the L2 schools because of the language factor.
A fourth reason may be our own personal experience at being educated. Some of us think that since we did well under an English-only or a bilingual system, then all of us should be able to make it. Evidence proves that it is the very bright children who are able to adjust to L2 instruction well enough to master the curricular content. Using the 2010 Cameroon data for Grade 3 students, Walter estimated that students between the 24th and the 44th percentiles in terms of academic achievement posted the highest cognitive gains averaging 28 percentile positions. This means that those most benefiting from L1 instruction appear to be the average or slightly below-average children.
A fifth likely reason is we do not believe that our own languages are capable of being vehicles for learning and that only English (and possibly Filipino) is intellectualized enough for higher order thinking. Sadly, this preposterous idea was pounded into our heads by our own leaders, who seem to hold the view that our own languages are inferior and only the colonial language is capable of expressing abstract thought. We must realize that it is not a question of intellectualizing a language first and using it for education later. Using a language in education for as long as possible actually intellectualizes that language. The Japanese, the Russians and the Koreans were able to develop their academic vocabulary in the hard sciences and in mathematics in their own languages. There is no reason why we cannot do so in Tagalog, Cebuano, Ilocano or in any language for that matter.
A sixth reason may be the fact that there are around 170 Philippine languages. It has frequently been asked what the policy is when there are two to three L1s in a classroom. There is no quick and ready answer to this question. One approach is to use multiple languages in teaching by deploying teachers who are fluent in these languages and using two-language and three-language materials. The other approach is to use the lingua franca in the region or area. Using multiple L1s in a classroom that learners understand is much more acceptable than using a single L2 that they don’t.
I maintain that six years of L1 education will produce good results for our youth, but eight years is definitely better. Butch Hernandez said in his commentary two weeks ago that the K-to-12 curriculum will define our youth. I agree, but only if we first settle the issue on the medium of learning before anything else.
Ricardo Ma. Duran Nolasco, PhD ([email protected]) is an associate professor in linguistics at UP Diliman. He is the president of the 170+ Talaytayan MLE Inc., and the adviser for first language initiatives of the Eggie Apostol Foundation.
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